For a while now I have been feeling that the world of music is in decline. Or, to put it more explicitly, it seemed to me as if the music we hear from our radios today is not as good as that we used to listen to in previous decades. The main question was whether this process is the result of my stagnating taste reflecting the passage of time or whether there was a measurable and objective decline in the quality of popular music.There is plenty of evidence before the court. Let us look at some of it.
Like many other radio stations, the Israel Defence Forces radio station, Galey Tsahal (also known as glz) runs popular music charts. Unlike those in larger populated countries these charts are based on popular votes rather than sales figures. At the end of every decade since the seventies, glz would have a special “song of the decade” chart.
The best song of the seventies was Hotel California by The Eagles (second place went to Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond). The best song of the Eighties was Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2. The nineties’ song was U2’s One, while the noughties’ song was Californiacation by The Red Hot Chilli Peppers. I suspect we can safely assume that had the chart been run during the sixties the winner would have been a Beatles song.
What I find most interesting when looking at the decades’ charts over time is the perceived decline in quality. Can Californiacation, or for what it’s worth One, even come close to competing with the might of Hotel California or The Wall?
Even worse, when I look at the top 10 list of the 2000’s I find many songs I don’t even remotely recognize (you can check the complete chart here), a phenomenon that simply did not take place in previous decades. When I checked the songs up I discovered why: those elusive songs are as exciting as Brussels sprouts. I suspect this comparison does ill favor to the latter.
We don’t even need to look as far as Israeli charts to witness the quality declining. Check the supplementals on the It Might Get Loud DVD: One of the pieces there is a press conference featuring the film’s three star guitarists, Jack White, The Edge and Jimmy Page. You’d have to be blind not to notice that Page was the biggest attraction by far, and you’d have to be deaf not to notice the main question on journos minds was whether we will ever have a Led Zeppelin reunion.
As far as I am concerned, the decline in the quality of popular music over the recent decades is very much a fact.
Next I will move to the philosophical realm, aided by a brilliant idea I read at a sports blog (here, but be warned – it’s in Hebrew).
The blogger, Ronen Dorfan, was saying the we tend to think there is constant positive progress in everything. However, he claims that is clearly not the case. Take Bach and Beethoven: can anyone look me in the eye and say that classical music talents of equal caliber exist today? No, I didn’t think so.
Why is it, then, that in today’s age, an age where we have ten times more humans living on the planet and more than ten times more humans living affluently on the planet, that we are unable to come up with equally talented composers?
The answer I would propose is that circumstances have changed to such a degree that there are no grounds for such talents to develop anymore. I would also suggest the same applies to popular music: between the commercialization of the market and the rise of the single, quality suffered. That is why all the songs sound the same when you switch on the radio to a popular music station.
Don’t get me wrong. Good music does exist; it’s just that it’s at the fringes, unable to attain the same place in our conscious that the likes of Led Zeppelin were able to achieve repeatedly.
I wonder what it would take for music to change direction and head for the better. At this stage, my hopes can only lie with the Internet. On one hand, the Internet and the digitization of music caused the world of music a lot of harm: we all seem to settle with inferior quality MP3 sound, we don’t care for albums anymore, and we are flooded with so much content it’s a major challenge to pick the good from the mediocre. Combine it all and you'd notice we are at an age where we cannot devote as much attention to music as we used to; the loss is entirely ours.
On the other hand, the Internet also allows everyone to instantly access more music than people of previous generations could ever dream of. We have the ability to learn from the past and maybe mix our way into a musically better sounding world.
On one hand the Internet drowns us; on the other it brought us an era where it is easier than ever to borrow on others' ideas and potentially improve them. The question is, which hand will be the winner?
Image by brizzle born and bred, Creative Commons license